CHILDREN in urban areas across Scotland are being sold short because local authorities are failing to help communities create play spaces on disused land, according to campaigners.
Play Scotland, a national organisation concerned with the importance of play, said councils should have a statutory duty to provide good quality play experiences for children, including access to green and wild spaces.
Voluntary organisations working in deprived areas also say that a 'cultural shift' is needed to ensure councils start supporting 'adventurous' play areas rather than “ticking boxes” by providing plastic play park equipment.
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Their calls were backed by Glasgow residents campaigning to save the North Kelvin Meadow in Glasgow - a site developed by the community as a wild space which includes grassland, an orchard and small children’s wood. The parents fighting for North Kelvin Meadow, also know as the Children's Wood, hope their fight will inspire communities across Scotland.
The disused football pitches in the city’s west end, now used by over 20 schools and nurseries as well as families - who can climb trees, light fires and play in a mud kitchen - were reclaimed by the community after lying abandoned for years.
But this week the council approved plans by developers New City Vision, to build executive flats on the site.
However in a move branded “chaotic” the committee also voted unanimously to grant planning permission to a proposal put forward by the Children’s Wood to retain the site as a community green space.
Tam Dean Burn, an actor and local resident instrumental in the campaign, along with other high profile figures including fellow actor Kate Dickie, claimed the fight would go on.
He said: “There is a different sort of play that happens in a wild space like this. I see the freedom and inspiration my own five-year-old gets from it.
“It’s a model of what could be going on not only across Glasgow, but across the country. We hope the lessons we’ve learned can be passed on so that communities across the country can develop their own wild areas.”
Emily Cutts, chair of the Children’s Wood, said that the need for good play areas was clear by the diversity of those using it.
As well as school groups, and the wood’s own forest playgroups, it is used by residents of a local day centre for old people. Groups of refugees are regular visitors as well as local growers planning to provide food to Maryhill Food Bank.
She added: “We’ve had children here who tell us that this is the first time they’ve played somewhere like this, or even that it’s the first time they have played outdoors all year. People from all over the city come to our playgroup.
“At the same time this has been very much a community space. We wouldn’t want to impose our ideas on anyone else but we would hope that it will inspire others to see what is possible.”
Marguerite Hunter Blair, chief executive of Play Scotland, said that those in deprived areas needed more support to access the same opportunities when it comes to their children accessing decent play areas.
“A lot of communities wouldn’t have the capacity, or the resilience to continue to fight in the face of such adversity,” she said of the North Kelvin Meadow campaign. “Quite often after a few knock-backs the system squashes you. But this campaign has been quite incredible.”
The Scottish Government should follow the example of Wales, she argued, where the statutory duty for play spaces is linked to the anti-poverty agenda.
“It’s important because when councils are cash strapped, the softer things are the ones to go, like play and youth work,” she added. “These are key interventions that should be protected.”
More also needs to be done to combat parental fear of allowing children to play outdoors independently, she added.
The latest Scottish household survey suggested that 65 per cent of children have access to a park and 58 per cent to a playground. But 43 percent of parents said it was not safe for them to walk or cycle there and 58 per cent were concerned about their children being in a wooded area.
Heather McGill Crawford, youth coordinator of LINKES, a community organisation based in the high rises of Lincoln Avenue in the north west of the city said many local parents had fears about safety.
“There is a play park and a bit of woodland within arms reach, “ added McGill Crawford. “But they are both on the other side of a very busy road.
“At our after school play sessions we can take them. But many are not allowed to cross the road on their own. We have been asking for a zebra crossing but we’ve not got very far. We need safe areas to play around the flats rather than car parks, and better access to the facilities that do exist.”
Melodie Crumlin, chief executive of the Peek children’s project in Glasgow’s eastend, said a re-think was needed. “The council has to shift its thinking away from the classic plastic play park and start creating more flexible spaces within communities,” she added.
“These spaces do exist but quite often they are barricaded in, or they are not accessible to children or need cleaned up. It’s about texture, bushes, ponds, wild adventurous space that doesn’t need equipment. These are the type of places that can be used by all age groups.”
Crumlin, whose organisation is working with over 20 communities in north and east Glasgow, said the attitude to play in social housing estates was often discouraging of free play with ‘no ball games’ signs still present and even chalk drawing discouraged.
“Aberdeen has ditched its “no ball games” signs,” she said. “Glasgow could very easily do the same. We are living in times when we have real issues with childhood obesity but yet we have so many barriers in place that stop children playing freely.”
John McKendick, a researcher into poverty and children’s play from Glasgow Caledonian University, said many positive moves were being made including national and city-wide play strategies and schemes for disused land such as Glasgow City Council’s “Stalled Spaces”, which has seen several brownfield sites used for play.
But he claimed the “development first” approach that has seen councils sell off land needed to be challenged. “I would like to see something more radical that would transform the city,” he added.
“We need local action and to champion projects like the Children’s Wood. If it is not allowed to continue then it contradicts and undermines the Play Strategy that the Scottish Government has in place.”
Where to play in the big city
Anyone can play outdoors but if you need some help getting started here are some of the best projects encouraging wild but urban play:
Urban Roots. This small charity in Toryglen, in the southside of Glasgow have been managing Malls Mire, a community owned woodland and wetland habitat next to a trainline since 2009. Staff run children’s activities allowing them to build fires, climb trees and explore.
Baltic Street Adventure Playground. Set up by Turner Prize 2015 winners Assemble, children create their own fun at this supervised playground for 6-12 year olds in the east end of Glasgow. Instead of plastic play equipment there are old tyres, planks, bricks and a campfire.
The Jeely Piece Club. Working in Castlemilk, a deprived areas in the south of Glasgow, outdoor play is a key ingredient for the Jeely Piece club. They run regular sessions in Castlemilk Woodlands. Children can make their own mudslides, play in the streams and sometimes even see deer.
Canongate Youth Project. This Edinburgh project runs an outdoor play ranger service for children aged 5-12 years old. Sessions take place in the green space around Arthur’s Seat and include loose parts play with planks, bricks, milk crates and anything else that is to hand.
The Broxburn Family Centre. The Broxburn Family Centre puts emphasis on taking risk and pushing boundaries. They have their own minibus and take their kids on regular trips into the wilds where they can explore and get properly muddy.
Government called in over Children's Wood 'conflict of interest'
The Scottish Government may intervene to save a much loved community green space in the heart of Glasgow’s west end after the council approved plans for executive flats.
Campaigners working to save the North Kelvin Meadow, off Clouston Street in Glasgow, have launched an online petition asking the government to call in – and reject - proposals for flats submitted by New City Vision.
They say Glasgow City Council cannot make the decision because as it stands to make money from developers, and not from the Children’s Wood proposals, there is a clear conflict of interest.
Emily Cutts, chair of the Children’s Wood, said: “We believe that the council has not paid due consideration to planning concerns – just four of a thousand people’s objections were looked at.
“According to the Scottish Government’s own criteria we are asking them to call in – and reject - the developer’s plans.”
In 2013 the Scottish Government issued a directive compelling Glasgow City Council to inform ministers if it was minded to approve the developers proposals. They are now discussions with the local authority.
A Scottish Government spokesperson confirmed that it would be looking at the issue, with ministers briefed next week.
He added: “Scottish planning policy expects planning to protect, enhance and promote green infrastructure, which includes open space, play spaces and green networks, as an integral component of successful place making.”
A spokesman for Glasgow City Council confirmed that it would be sending relevant details to Scottish Government ministers for consideration.